Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

Say "cheesy".

Say “cheesy”.

(2006) Fantasy (Picturehouse) Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr., Ty Burrell, Harris Yulin, Jane Alexander, Boris McGiver, Emmy Clarke, Genevieve McCarthy, Mary Duffy, Lynn Marie Stetson, Gwendolyn Bucci, Eric Gingold, Christina Rouner, Marceline Hugo, Emily Bergl, Matt Servitto, David Green, Sandriel Frank, Krista Coyle. Directed by Steven Shainberg.

In the 1950s, housewives were expected essentially to be seen and not heard. The only voice their husbands wanted to hear was “Welcome home, honey” and “Here’s your martini” and “Dinner’s ready” and maybe “Yes, dear.” Of course, that’s a very simplistic way of looking at things and most wives, even back then, had voice and were heard, although they often had to find subtle ways of doing it. Diane Arbus was never the strongest of women, but she had a vision and her determination to express it led her to places that she could not have expected to go.

Diane Arbus (Kidman), the quiet, mousy daughter of fur magnate David Nemorov (Yulin) and his overbearing wife Gertrude (Alexander), is also the devoted wife to would-be photographer Allan (Burrell). She has aspirations to being a photographer herself, but has had little time to pursue that dream, helping her husband run his portrait studio as well as clean their apartment and raise their children. However, her passions and eclectic nature have led even her children to label her “weird,” although her saintly husband is willing to overlook her occasional emotional outbursts and supports her in nearly everything she wants to do.

However, a drastic change ensues when the mysterious Lionel (Downey) moves in upstairs. He only ventures in public wearing a sweater mask; that is, when he ventures out at all. She finally summons up the courage to go introduce herself to the new neighbor and discovers he suffers from a rare disfigurement; his hair grows rapidly and all over his body, turning him effectively into a living wolf man. Once she gets over his appearance, she wants to take his portrait but he keeps demurring, offering her a glimpse into a world of what used to be called the freaks; a world of dwarves and dominatrix, giants and gender benders. She begins to immerse herself more fully into that world, withdrawing more and more from her own family. Which world will Diane Arbus eventually choose?

Kidman is asked to carry this movie while retaining the obedient and subservient demeanor of a 1950s housewife. Much of her dialogue is in a whispering, excuse-me-for-speaking voice which at times gets irritating, considering you’re asking the audience to retain an interest in her character. To her credit, Kidman’s  acting is right on the money for the character as written, but pales when compared to Downey’s Lionel.

Essentially pared of facial expression for most of the movie (except for the very last reel in which Kidman tenderly – and sensually – shaves the fur from his skin), Downey uses his eyes and his voice to great effect. Although he received no acting nominations for any major awards for his performance, he was certainly deserving of consideration. If they’d used a fictional photographer loosely based on Arbus in many ways this would have been a better movie, because then they could make it about Lionel. In addition, Burrell does a surprisingly good job as the husband helplessly watching his wife drift away, wanting her to be happy and yet needing her love and support. You can see the potential he would eventually fulfill in Modern Family.

The filmmakers capture the energy of New York circa 1958 rather nicely. The apartment set by Amy Danger and Carrie Stewart, is spot-on. The set decoration, both of the Arbus’ apartment with its 1950s normality, and the more whimsical loft of Lionel, is bold and striking. Carter Burwell’s score captures the jazzy feel one associates with the city in the era of the Beat Generation. The legendary Stan Winston’s make-up for Lionel makes him the perfect Beast to Kidman’s Beauty.

First of all, I don’t like the whole concept. Why create a fictional account of Diane Arbus’ life? I’d much rather prefer to see a movie about her actual life. Wasn’t it interesting enough? I also find it highly telling that in a movie purporting to be a tribute to the world-famous photographer they use none of her photographs. I found very little of Diane Arbus in this movie, at least as far as I could detect. While Kidman does a pretty good job acting, she is asked to essentially carry the movie and yet be reserved and quiet (most of her lines are delivered in almost a whisper), leading to a curiously flat quality to the movie. We never get a sense of who Diane Arbus really was or why anyone should bother making a film about her life.

No. I honestly think this does a disservice to the memory of Diane Arbus and her work. I felt after seeing it that I hadn’t gleaned anything new about the artist; in that sense, you’re better off picking up a book of her photographs (of course, that’s pretty much true of any artist). Despite Downey’s wonderful performance and Kidman’s presence, the movie is neither inspiring nor informative and sadly, not really entertaining either.

WHY RENT THIS: Downey is compelling. Recreates the era nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: We don’t ever see any of Arbus’ actual photographs. Would have preferred seeing her actual life story. Kidman speaks in a whisper and we never get the sense that Arbus was of any interest whatsoever.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is much explicit nudity and a graphic sex scene. The adult tone to the film make it unsuitable viewing for any but the most mature teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Director Steven Shainberg’s Uncle Lawrence was a close friend of Diane Arbus.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2,3M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Eyes
FINAL RATING: 3.5/10
NEXT: Selma

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